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How to Become a Counselor: Steps and FAQs

How to Become a Counselor: Steps and FAQs

If you want to help people with their mental health as a counselor but have no idea where to start when it comes to education paths, training, or certifications, this guide can help. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a counselor.

A genuine passion for helping people and a desire to get them through difficult situations – words that describe many prospective counselors.

Maybe you’ve had difficult personal experiences yourself, and after seeing a counselor, decided to become one, too. Or maybe you just have a dedicated interest in psychology and want to do your part in helping people who are struggling.

If your goal is to make a positive impact, becoming a counselor may be a path for you.

Is becoming a counselor right for me?

As a counselor, you’re responsible for helping people facing mental health or personal issues create strategies to overcome these obstacles.

You develop professional relationships with your clients and offer advice, solve problems, provide emotional support, and empower them to handle these challenges independently.

A counselor is trained in psychology, social work, or a related degree, and usually needs a master’s in their fields. You may also specialize in various areas, such as substance abuse or grief counseling.

Is counseling right for you? Even after spending several years rigorously studying psychology, it’s not an easy job. Do you have the empathy, communication skills, and emotional resilience to be a beacon for those who are struggling?

If you think you can do it, then follow this guide that walks you through how to become a mental health counselor and determine your path.

How to Become a Counselor: Step-by-Step

Wondering how to become a licensed mental health counselor? As you embark on this journey, there are several steps to complete.

You’re looking at around six years in education as a full-time student, another two or more years of supervised work, and a difficult licensing test. In total, becoming a counselor could take 8-12 years from starting education to obtaining your license.

It’s certainly not an easy task, but your hard work will provide you with the skills you need to handle difficult situations. Let’s dive into the detailed roadmap of how to become a counselor.

The first step of your journey to becoming a counselor involves laying a strong foundation with a relevant bachelor’s degree.

Counselors often pursue a bachelor’s degree in these topics:

  • Counseling – When available, a bachelor’s degree in counseling may be the best choice.
  • Psychology – When a counseling degree is unavailable, most prospective counselors opt to obtain a degree in psychology instead.
  • Social Work – A bachelor’s degree in social work is also an acceptable alternative.
  • Sociology – While less common, a bachelor’s in sociology could open paths to becoming a licensed mental health professional.

These programs provide a comprehensive understanding of human behavior, communication, and the fundamentals of counseling.

Completing a bachelor’s degree will generally take about four years, but this can vary depending on whether you’re a full-time or part-time student. Part-time study could take up to six years to complete your degree.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 44% of first-time students completed their degree in four years or less. About three quarters complete it within six years.

Additionally, you may be wondering if it’s possible to complete your bachelor’s degree fully online. The answer is yes! You can complete an online degree in psychology or a related field 100% online from a number of top schools. However, keep in mind that many psychology and counseling courses require some in-person work.

Step 2: Complete a Pre-Master’s Internship

Upon completing your foundational education, you then have a choice: dive right into earning your master’s degree, or spend a transitional year completing a pre-master’s internship to get some valuable hands-on experience.

Besides being more equipped to tackle your master’s degree, internship hours you take on now may count toward completing your master’s degree.

Many universities, such as University of Central Florida, offer an integrated pre-master’s internship program. This takes about 19-29 hours a week, and it begins in August and lasts until the end of the spring or summer semester.

There’s also the Mental Health Training Program by Kaiser Permanente, which takes up to 30 hours a week and can be completed in 9-12 months.

Most institutions will require you to complete internship and practicum experience during the master’s counseling course, and getting a head start on this could help you get your degree faster.

Step 3: Complete a Master’s Degree in Counseling

With a solid foundation of education and hands-on experience, it’s time to complete your final few years of education. A master’s degree in counseling not only deepens your theoretical knowledge but hones your practical skills.

The crucial step: selecting the right degree to set you up for a job in the industry. Completing it will take about two years as a full-time student.

Now is the time to specialize if you wish to study a particular field. You can obtain master’s degrees in topics like school counseling, marriage and family therapy, or mental health counseling. Or you can simply pursue a master’s degree in counseling.

Before you pick an area of study, check the licensing requirements in your state. They may require a specific type of degree, or a program accredited by a certain organization, to obtain licensure and work as a counselor.

Additionally, some counseling licenses require a certain amount of field work, so if you wish to study online in these states, make sure it’s a hybrid program.

Typically, a doctorate is not required to pursue a career in counseling. Certain advanced fields, including counseling psychology or educational psychology, require one.

Step 4: Complete Your Supervised Clinical Work

Upon graduating, now comes the transitional stage: supervised clinical work.

While in this period, you must practice under supervision of a licensed mental health provider that meets certain criteria. You’ll periodically meet with your supervisor to discuss your cases and receive guidance.

Your school or state’s licensing board can direct you to qualified supervisors.

The American Counseling Association says that most states require 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised experience. This will usually take about two or three years to achieve.

Most states stipulate that supervised clinical work must be obtained post-master’s, so any past internships will not count.

Research your state’s licensing requirements to learn how much clinical supervision you’ll need to accrue and the requirements for your supervisor’s credentials.

This is a long road, and you’ll likely find yourself counting down the hours until you can finally be independent, but supervised clinical work will provide you with valuable guidance and the experience you’ll need to be successful.

Step 5: Take the NCMHCE Board Exam and Apply for Licensure

As you near the end of your counseling education, it’s time for the final step: taking the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) and getting licensed.

The exact steps here depend on where you live and what type of certification you’re pursuing, but a majority of states will require you to take the NCMHCE or the NCE – some states require both.

These tests can be taken online or in person at any Pearson VUE test center. The exams assess your knowledge of clinical best practices and your ability to apply counseling techniques in a variety of situations.

Once you’ve passed and meet all requirements, it’s time to apply for a license.

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) – This is the general counseling degree offered by a majority of states.
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) – The LMHC is a common choice for counselors specializing in mental health. 
  • Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) – Those practicing marital and family therapy obtain this license.
  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) – These licenses are issued by the National Board for Certified Counselors. This is not a required credential, but can help you obtain LPC/LMHC licensure in multiple states.

Once you’ve obtained your license, your work isn’t done. You’ll usually need to renew it every few years.

William James College provides an updated list of the licenses granted in each state.

Once you’ve obtained the license you need, you’re ready to step into the world as a certified professional counselor.

Counseling Specializations to Consider

You may be wondering how to become a counselor in a specialized field. A counseling career opens doors to diverse specializations, allowing you to tailor your expertise to specific areas of interest. Explore the specializations below to see if any fit with your interests.

How to Become a School Guidance Counselor

If you’re passionate about fostering academic and personal growth in students, consider becoming a school counselor. You’ll provide crucial support in educational settings, addressing academic challenges, navigating personal issues, and assisting in career exploration.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that school counselors must have at least a master’s degree in counseling or psychology, and many states require specialized training or a school counseling master’s degree. Career counseling or teaching programs may be necessary, and you will need to be licensed.

The American School Counselor Association maintains a list of state licensure requirements for school counselors.

How to Become a Marriage Counselor

Those interested in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships may wish to become a marriage counselor. You’ll have the opportunity to help couples navigate challenges and strengthen their bonds.

A master’s degree in psychology or counseling is required, or you could take a specialized master’s in marriage and family therapy. You will also need to pass the MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist) exam.

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Addressing the complex challenges of substance abuse, this specialization equips counselors to support individuals on their path to recovery. As a substance abuse counselor, you will play a crucial role in helping people overcome addiction in this emotionally challenging but fulfilling job.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s possible to become a substance abuse counselor with only a bachelor’s degree. To become licensed, you’ll need a master’s degree in psychology or social sciences. Many programs offer specific degrees for substance abuse.

You may also need Alcohol & Drug Counselor (ADC) certification from IC&RC or Master Addictions Counselor certification from the NBCC.

How to Become a Grief Counselor

Many people who struggle to cope with loss turn to grief counselors, who play a crucial role in helping people rebuild their lives after experiencing a significant loss.

Becoming a grief counselor is similar to becoming a mental health counselor, though a master’s degree isn’t required unless you wish to become licensed.

The American Academy of Grief Counseling provides certification that could be helpful to advancing your career.

How to Become a Genetic Counselor

Genetics counseling is a unique specialization that helps individuals understand their risk for genetic disorders. You also assist children and adults who have genetic disorders and help them receive treatment.

This is very different from typical counseling work: The National Society of Genetic Counselors states that you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in scientific fields like genetics, biochemistry, or psychology, and a master’s degree from an accredited program. You may also want certification from the American Board of Genetic Counseling.

State-Specific Counseling Requirements

There are 50 states in the U.S., and each one has different counselor licensing requirements. Most request a master’s degree in counseling or a related field and 2,000-3,000 supervised hours, but the specifics vary wildly.

How to Become a Counselor in California

Aspiring California counselors must go through the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) to become a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), the equivalent of an LPC. You must also:

  • Possess a graduate degree related to counseling or psychotherapy that meets certain content and accreditation requirements defined by California law.
  • Be registered as an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor.
  • Pass a criminal background check and be fingerprinted.
  • Pass the California Law & Ethics Exam.
  • Accrue 3,000 total supervised hours over a minimum 104 weeks.
  • Pass the NCMHCE.

How to Become a Counselor in Texas

To become a licensed counselor in Texas, you’ll first need to get an LPC Associate license from the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council before you can begin accruing supervised hours. You must also:

  • Possess a graduate degree in counseling or a related field from an accredited program that meets specific standards.
  • Pass the NCE or NCMHCE.
  • Complete the Texas Jurisprudence Examination.
  • Locate a board-approved supervisor and submit a signed supervisory agreement form.

After that, you can obtain your full LPC license. You must are required to:

  • Hold an LPC Associate license.
  • Complete 3,000 hours of supervised practice, 1,500 hours of which must be direct supervised counseling practice.
  • Complete the Human Trafficking Prevention course.

How to Become a Counselor in New York

Mental health professionals in the Empire State rely on the New York State Education Department to obtain their LMHC license, which is the equivalent of an LPC. You must:

  • Be at least 21 and be of good moral character.
  • Possess a graduate degree in counseling that is registered with the Department, accredited by CACREP, or provides education equivalent to these requirements.
  • Complete 3,000 hours of supervised practice, 1,500 hours of which must involve direct client contact.
  • Pass the NCMHCE.

How to Become a Counselor in Florida

To acquire your LMHC certification in Florida, you must meet licensing requirements set by the Florida Board of Mental Health Counseling and:

  • Possess a graduate degree in counseling or a related field from an accredited university.
  • Complete two years of supervised experience, including 1,500 hours of direct client contact.
  • Pass the NCMHCE.
  • Complete the eight-hour Florida laws and rules course, three-hour HIV/AIDS course, and two-hour domestic violence course.

How to Become a Counselor in Ohio

In Ohio, you must first become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) through the Counselor and Social Worker Board and:

  • Possess a graduate degree in mental health, addiction, or rehabilitation counseling accredited by CACREP.
  • Pass the NCE.
  • Submit BCI & FBI criminal records.

Then, you can become a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) and must:

  • Complete two years and 3,000 hours of supervised experience, including 150 hours of training supervision.
  • Pass the NCMHCE.